Part Five
Chapter XXIII
 

The office was expensively but plainly furnished in hardwoods. A thick rug covered the floor, easy chairs drew up by a fireplace, several good pictures hung off the wall. Near the windows stood a small desk for a stenographer, and a wide mahogany table. Behind this latter, his back to the light, sat Baker.

The man's sturdy figure was absolutely immobile, and the customary facetiously quizzical lines of his face had given place to an expression of cold attention. When he spoke, Bob found that the picturesque diction too had vanished.

At Bob's entrance, Baker inclined his head coldly in greeting, but said nothing. Bob deliberately crossed the room and rested his two fists, knuckle down, on the polished desktop. Baker waited stolidly for him to proceed. Bob jerked his head toward the stenographer.

"I want to talk to you in private," said he.

The stenographer glanced toward her employer. The latter nodded, whereupon she gathered a few stray leaves of paper and departed. Bob looked after her until the door had closed behind her. Then, quite deliberately, he made a tour of the office, trying doors, peering behind curtains and portieres. He ended at the desk, to find Baker's eye fixed on him with sardonic humour. "Melodramatic, useless--and ridiculous," he said briefly.

"If I have any evidence to give, it will be in court, not in a private office," replied Bob composedly.

"What do you want?" demanded Baker.

"I have come this far solely and simply to get a piece of information at first hand. I was told you had threatened to become a blackmailer, and I wanted to find out if it is true?"

"In a world of contrary definitions, it is necessary to come down to facts. What do you mean by blackmailer?"

"It has been told me that you intend to aid criminal proceedings against Mr. Welton in regard to the right-of-way trouble and the 'sugaring' of Plant."

"Well?"

"And that in order to evade your own criminal responsibility in the matter you intended to turn state's evidence."

"Well?" repeated Baker.

"It seemed inconceivable to me that a man of your social and business standing would not only confess himself a petty criminal, but one who shelters himself by betrayal of his confederate."

"I do not relish any such process," stated Baker formally, "and would avoid it if possible. Nevertheless, if the situation comes squarely up to me, I shall meet it."

"I suppose you have thought what decent men----"

Baker held up one hand. This was the first physical movement he had made.

"Pardon me," he interrupted. "Let us understand, once and for all, that I intend to defend myself when attacked. Personally I do not think that either Mr. Welton or myself are legally answerable for what we have done. I regret to observe that you, among others, think differently. If the whole matter were to be dropped at this point, I should rest quite content. But if the matter is not dropped"--at last he let his uplifted hand fall, "if the matter is not dropped," he repeated, "my sense of justice is strong enough to feel that every one should stand on the same footing. If I am to be dragged into court, so must others."

Bob stood thoughtful for a moment.

"I guess that's all," said he, and walked out.

As the door closed behind him, Baker reached forward to touch one of several buttons. To the uniformed messenger who appeared he snapped out the one word, "Oldham!" A moment later the land agent stood before the wide mahogany desk.

"Orde has just been here," stated Baker crisply. "He wanted to know if I intended to jail Welton on that old bribery charge. I told him I did."

"How did he take it?"

"As near as I can tell he is getting obstinate. You claimed very confidently you could head off his testimony. Up to date you haven't accomplished much. Make good."

"I'll head him off," stated Oldham grimly, "or put him where he belongs. I've saved a little persuasion until all the rest had failed."

"How?"

"That I'll tell you in time, but not now. But I don't mind telling you that I've no reason to love this Orde--or any other Orde--and I intend to get even with him on my own account. It's a personal and private matter, but I have a club that will keep him."

"Why the secrecy?"

"It's an affair of my own," insisted Oldham, "but I have it on him. If he attempts to testify as to the Basin lands, I'll have him in the penitentiary in ten days."

"And if he agrees?"

"Then," said Oldham quietly, "I'll have him in the pen a little later--after the Basin matter is settled once and for all."

Baker considered this a little.

"My judgment might be worth something as to handling this," he suggested.

"The matter is mine," said Oldham firmly, "and I must choose my own time and place."

"Very well," Baker acquiesced; "but I'd advise you to tackle Orde at once. Time is short. Try out your club to see if it will work."

"It will work!" stated Oldham confidently.

"Of course," remarked Baker, relaxing abruptly his attitude, physical and mental, and lighting a cigar, "of course, it is all very well to yank the temples down around the merry Philistines, but it doesn't do your Uncle Samson much good. We can raise hell with Welton and Orde and a half-dozen others, and we will, if they push us too hard--but that don't keep us the Basin if this crazy reformer testifies and pulls in Welton to corroborate him. I'd rather keep the Basin. If we could stop Orde----"

"I'll stop him," said Oldham.

"I hope," said Baker impressively, "that you have more than one string to your bow. I am not inquiring into your methods, you understand"--his pause was so significantly long at this point, that Oldham nodded--"but your sole job is to keep Orde out of court."

Baker looked his agent squarely in the eye for fifteen seconds. Then abruptly he dropped his gaze.

"That's all," said he, and reached for some papers.